At its core, Buried Child tells the story of the breakdown of a traditional, twentieth-century family unit. During the play, Shelly, the girlfriend of one of the characters and therefore an outsider to the family, compares the family farmhouse to a Norman Rockwell painting. Her first impression, then, is of a perfect, idyllic family living a perfect life. But Shepard’s goal in establishing such a “picture-perfect” family is to immediately and obviously subvert it, and in fact to subvert it before Shelly makes her observation, so that even as Shelly delivers her statement the audience knows how profoundly wrong she is. Essentially Shepard uses the play to explore a family that has fallen into total dysfunction.
Rather than being a source of love and mutual support to each other, the characters in the family engage in grotesque struggles for power and authority. Dodge and Halie, the patriarch and matriarch of the family, may have been the proprietors of a successful farm, but now their land is useless and they can barely stand to be in the same room together. Dodge, once a powerful figure, is nearly immobilized by illness, and Halie rails against his uselessness while also using his immobility as an opportunity to do as she pleases. They are both ineffectual family leaders and often try to use other characters to defend themselves against each other.
The family’s middle-aged sons—and Dodge’s possible replacements for the position of patriarch—vie for leadership, but certainly aren’t cut out for it. Tilden—once a golden-boy in high school—is no breadwinner, but rather has recently returned home due and needs to be observed and cared for like a child. The power-hungry Bradley is abusive to his father in his attempts for power, but the leg he lost as a youth thwarts his effectiveness and makes him bitter and unable to actually lead (or even wield power effectively).
Along with these various power-struggles, the emotions of guilt and shame—and the breakdown of communication about these feelings—conspire to drive the family apart. Dodge drinks himself to death, Halie acts promiscuously and lives in the past, Tilden runs away, and Bradley becomes at once both vicious and cowardly. Further, the play focuses the source of the family dysfunction around the two great literary taboos of family: incest and murder. It’s revealed that, years earlier, Dodge murdered the baby that was the product of Halie’s long-ago incest with Tilden. Dodge’s act was a gross distortion of the patriarchal role, just as Halie’s relationship with Tilden was a corruption of her role as mother. While the patriarch of a family is traditionally the source of its moral standards (as well as financial success), Dodge’s moral outrage was so harsh that it resulted in the murder of a baby, which tore him and his family apart. By working with these motifs, Shepherd also connects his play back to the dramas of ancient Greece—Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, etc.—and links this Midwestern American family to those tragically-fated families of Classical mythology.
Many explorations of family in fiction and drama depict seemingly normal families and then reveal the cracks and problems beneath. Shepherd attacks the family drama from another angle, depicting a family that is essentially nothing but cracks and problems. However, it is important to note that despite the constant dysfunction, the family never ceases to be a family. Vince, after all, returns to the family to try to find meaning in his life, and even when he tries to escape, he realizes he cannot leave behind his ancestors, and so he returns. Even if the members of the family feel totally trapped by their destructive familial unit, the play also demonstrates the power of this unit—the tightly knit bond that keeps families together, for better or worse.
Family and Its Demise ThemeTracker
Family and Its Demise Quotes in Buried Child
Halie’s Voice: You always imagine the worst things in people.
Dodge: That’s not the worst! That’s the least of the worst!
Halie’s Voice: Tilden’s the oldest. He’ll protect you.
Dodge: Tilden can’t even protect himself.
Tilden: I never had any trouble.
Dodge: Tilden, your mother told me all about it.
Tilden: What’d she tell you?
Dodge: I don’t have to repeat what she told me! She told me all about it!
You’ve gotta watch out for him. It’s our responsibility. He can’t look after himself anymore, so we have to do it. Nobody else will do it. We can’t just send him away somewhere. If we had lots of money we could send him away. But we don’t. We never will. That’s why we have to stay healthy. You and me. Nobody’s going to look after us. Bradley can’t look after us. Bradley can hardly look after himself… I had no idea in the world that Tilden would be so much trouble. Who would have dreamed? Tilden was an All-American, don’t forget. Don’t forget that. Fullback. Or quarterback. I forget which.
I put all my hopes in Ansel… Course then when Ansel died and left us all alone. Same as being alone. No different. Same as if they’d all died… He was a hero. Don’t forget that. Brave. Strong…
He was blind with love. Blind. I knew. Everyone knew. The wedding was more like a funeral. You remember? All those Italians. All that horrible black, greasy hair. The rancid smell of cheap cologne. I think even the priest was wearing a pistol. When he gave her the ring I knew he was a dead man. I knew it. As soon as he gave her the ring. But then it was the honeymoon that killed him. The honeymoon. I knew he'd never come back from the honeymoon.
Halie: I don’t know what’s come over you, Dodge. I don’t know what in the world’s come over you. You’ve become an evil man. You used to be a good man.
Dodge: Six of one, half a dozen of another.
Halie: You sit here day and night, festering away! Decomposing! Smelling up the house with your putrid body! Hacking your head off till all hours of the morning! Thinking up mean, evil, stupid things to say about your own flesh and blood!
Dodge: He’s not my flesh and blood! My flesh and blood’s buried in the back yard!
Dodge: You’re a grown man. You shouldn’t be needing your parents at your age. It’s unnatural. Couldn’t make a living down there? Couldn’t find some way to make a living? Support yourself? What’d’ya come back here for? You expect us to feed you forever?
Tilden: I didn’t know where else to go.
Dodge: I never went back to my parents. Never. Never even had the urge. I was always independent. Always found a way.
Tilden: I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t figure anything out.
Dodge: There’s nothing to figure out. You just forge ahead. What’s there to figure out?
…I mean Vince has this thing about his family now. I guess it’s a new thing for him. I kind of find it hard to relate to. But he feels it’s important. You know. I mean he feels he wants to get to know you all again. After all this time…
We had a baby. He did. Dodge did. Could pick it up with one hand. Put it in the other. Little baby. Dodge killed it… Dodge drowned it… Never told Halie. Never told anybody. Just drowned it… Nobody could find it. Just disappeared. Cops looked for it. Neighbors. Nobody could find it… Finally everybody just gave up. Just stopped looking. Everybody had a different answer. Kidnap. Murder. Accident. Some kind of accident.
Yeah, he used to be a big deal. Wore lettermen’s sweaters. Had medals hanging all around his neck. Real purty. Big deal. This one too. You’d never think it to look at him would ya? All bony and wasted away.
Hey! Missus. Don’t talk to me like that. Don’t talk to me in that tone a’ voice. There was a time when I had to take that tone a’ voice from pretty near everyone. Him, for one! Him and that half brain that just ran outa’ here. They don’t talk to me like that now. Not any more. Everything’s turned around now. Full circle. Isn’t that funny?
Halie: Ansel’s getting a statue, Dodge. Did you know that? Not a plaque but a real live statue. A full bronze. Tip to toe. A basketball in one hand and a rifle in the other.
Bradley: He never played basketball!
Halie: You shut up, Bradley! You shut up about Ansel! Ansel played basketball better than anyone! And you know it! He was an All American! There’s no reason to take the glory away from others.
Don’t come near me! Don’t anyone come near me. I don’t need any words from you. I’m not threatening anybody. I don’t even know what I’m doing here. You all say you don’t remember Vince, okay, maybe you don’t. Maybe it’s Vince that’s crazy. Maybe he’s made this whole family thing up. I don’t even care anymore. I was just coming along for the ride. I thought it’d be a nice gesture. Besides, I was curious. He made all of you sound familiar to me. Every one of you. For every name, I had an image. Every time he’d tell me a name, I’d see the person. In fact, each of you was so clear in my mind that I actually believed it was you. I really believed that when I walked through that door that the people who lived here would turn out to be the same people in my imagination. Real people. People with faces. But I don’t recognize any of you. Not one. Not even the slightest resemblance.
…Halie had this kid. This baby boy. She had it. I let her have it on her own. All the other boys I had had the best doctors, best nurses, everything. This one I let her have by herself. This one hurt real bad. Almost killed her, but she had it anyway. It lived, see. It lived. It wanted to grow up in this family. It wanted to be just like us. It wanted to be part of us. It wanted to pretend that I was its father. She wanted me to believe in it. Even when everyone around us knew. Everyone. All our boys knew. Tilden knew… I killed it. I drowned it. Just like the runt of a litter. Just drowned it.
I was gonna run last night. I was gonna run and keep right on running. Clear to the Iowa border. I drove all night with the windows open. The old man’s two bucks flapping right on the seat beside me. It never stopped raining the whole time. Never stopped once. I could see myself in the windshield. My face. My eyes. I studied my face. Studied everything about it as though I was looking at another man. As though I could see his whole race behind him. Like a mummy’s face. I saw him dead and alive at the same time. In the same breath. In the windshield I watched him breathe as though he was frozen in time and every breath marked him. Marked him forever without him knowing. And then his face changed. His face became his father’s face. Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath. And his father’s face changed to his grandfather’s face. And it went on like that. Changing. Clear on back to faces I’d never seen before but still recognized. Still recognized the bones underneath. The eyes. The mouth. The breath. I followed my family clear into Iowa. Every last one. Straight into the corn belt and further. Straight back as far as they’d take me. Then it all dissolved. Everything dissolved. Just like that.
Good hard rain. Takes everything straight down deep to the roots. The rest takes care of itself. You can’t force a thing to grow. You can’t interfere with it. It’s all hidden. It’s all unseen. You just gotta wait til it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong though. Strong enough to break the earth even. It’s a miracle, Dodge. I’ve never seen a crop like this in my whole life. Maybe it’s the sun. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the sun.